Some struggle because they doubt; I sometimes struggle because I believe.
I believe in a God whose love is so great that He is love. I also believe in a God who is all-powerful. But sometimes my belief causes me to struggle.
When I see sad and desperate situations, compassion compels me to help and to pray. If I am completely honest, this is where faith can become a little confusing.
When I can’t do anything to alleviate the pain and suffering (especially of those whom I love), my faith is unwavering in the fact that God can do something to help. But when I pray and nothing changes to alleviate their suffering, or they become worse, I struggle to understand why God doesn’t seem to answer the cries of my heart for those in need.
I am not completely sure what role faith and prayer play in the painful and perplexing drama of human suffering.
An old tension
I realize that I am not the first to be conflicted between faith and suffering. I resonate with the psalmist,
“How long, O Lord ? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” (Psalm 13:1-2).
“I am worn out calling for help; my throat is parched. My eyes fail, looking for my God. Answer me, O Lord, out of the goodness of your love; in your great mercy turn to me. Do not hide your face from your servant; answer me quickly, for I am in trouble. Come near and rescue me…” (Psalm 69:3, 16-18).
Like the psalmist, I have also struggled with an apparent uneven distribution of pain and suffering. This is the age-old question of why righteous people suffer and the wicked are healthy and prosperous (see: Psalm 73). But I maintain strong reservations about anyone being righteous enough to lay claim to a good life from God.
I believe in the verdict “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). I also believe that, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Death is such a horrible word and an even more horrible fact. But it is a just verdict pronounced over sinners like me. I am slowly experiencing it every day of my life.
I believe that there is a dark and sad back-story to our suffering and a glorious end-story for those whom God loves. Yet pain in this life is often hard to reconcile with God’s love and power.
The agonizing question we face is why God chooses to allow pain and suffering when I am praying so much for its relief. Why doesn’t He answer my agonizing prayers for those who suffer? I cannot endure superficial answers to this real-life question.
Skeptics offer answers ranging from atheism to deism. But for honest people, these alternatives only lead to deeper levels of despair. They also force a degree of thoughtless dishonesty which I cannot permit. If I must choose between “no God” or “a God who means well but either cannot or will not do much to help” I am left with even more perplexing questions on more levels than human suffering. In addition, these conclusions profoundly compromise basic intellectual integrity.
Let’s not ignore other questions equally worthy of reflection. Why does God choose to love and to forgive rebellious creatures? The back-story of human sin explains the source of human suffering better than any other explanation (and there are not many others). So why would I think we deserve to have it better?
Why do I feel that God should intervene? And what would intervention look like on a world scale?
If want God’s love and power to converge to rescue us from our misery, isn’t this exactly what happened when God entered our world of suffering in the person of Christ and suffered for us ? (see: II Corinthians 5:17-21).
Finally, why does God even provide such a glorious end-story for forgiven sinners?
On a cultural level, I admit that I have become accustom to (and even impatient for) solutions to pain and suffering. Advancements in science and medicine have strengthened my expectations. Is it possible that I am conditioned to hold unrealistic expectation for health and gregariousness? Do I have a place for sadness and suffering in normal life?
These are not theoretical questions for me. They have been real for most of my life. When my father came down with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis in his mid-thirties, I learned what it was like to carry a prayerful burden for a suffering loved one. It profoundly shaped my life and, gratefully, did not lead to bitterness. I learned so much about God’s sustaining grace and His redeeming power to bring good out of pain and suffering.
I continued to learn when I entered pastoral ministry and chose to care about many others. Some key scriptures that carry me to better places include: II Corinthians 1:3-11; 4:16-18;12:1-10; James 1:2-9; Psalm 62:8; Proverbs 3:5-6.
I will continue to pray and trust that suffering has a purpose even when I cannot see it. I will pray with one eye on the back-story and a hope-filled focus on the end-story (see: Colossians 3:1-4).
When God’s loved ones enter the place He has prepared for them, ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (see: Revelation 21:1-6; John 14:1-3). I find myself longing more and more for this day; for this place.
Reflect on these words:
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (II Corinthians 12:9-10).